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Protect Your Marine Electronics While Laying-Up

by Dave Alston

For whatever reason, when the time comes, it helps to know how to protect your marine electronics while laying-up or stacking your boat.  Anyone who’s been around electronics for any length of time knows that one of the most common statements following the discovery of an electronic problem is “it was working when I turned it off.”  A large percentage of failures in electronics occur at the instant you power it on.  This can be attributed to a number of factors including exposure to moisture, abnormal voltages, static electricity, and extreme temperatures.  When vessels lay dormant for extended periods of time the incidents of electronic equipment failure appear to increase significantly.  However, there are steps and precautions that owners, operators, and technicians can take that may substantially reduce the potential of equipment failure that often accompany periods of nonuse.
Before I get to the actual electronics it might be a good idea to touch on something else that directly ties into this subject.  Your battery system needs to be considered when developing a plan for laying-up or stacking your boat.  If nothing is going to be operational (i.e. bilge pumps, fire systems….) during the down time then completely disconnecting your batteries is a good ideal.  Either way, they should be fully charged before storage and not go more than several months without recharging.  The best practice is to recharge batteries before they drop below a 70% charge level.  Avoid extreme temperatures and prolonged exposure to moisture.  An uncharged lead acid battery that is allowed to freeze may be irreparably damaged.  Be sure to completely charge batteries before using them.  Firing up the generator and turning everything on while the batteries charge is a poor practice and could result in equipment damage.
In closed spaces on a boat that contain electronics, installing a dehumidifier is an excellent way to control condensation.  Not only will it help protect your electronics but will go a long way towards controlling corrosion on wiring and connectors.  In smaller spaces where installing a dehumidifier is not possible, using silica gel packs can substantially reduce the moisture.  Large gel packs are available that will effectively cover several hundred cubic feet.  Placing smaller packs inside radar scanners, satellite TV domes, and any other confined space that houses electronics is a very inexpensive way to assist you in controlling moisture.  As previously mentioned, eliminating 100% of moisture is impossible but applying every method and tool at your disposable should be of top priority.
Another area of concern is the potential of damage due to static electricity, including the worse kind, lightning.  Boats and everything protruding from them are magnets for static electricity and it doesn’t take much to cause severe damage to your electronics.  There’s absolutely nothing you can do to avoid damage if your boat, or anything on it sustains a direct, or even an indirect lightning strike.  However, reducing the amount of static accumulation on antennas will reduce the odds of a strike.  Even without lightning, simple static build-up on antennas and cables can potentially cause serious damage to electronic equipment.  Just as with moisture control, take an active role in the prevention of damage from static electricity and you’ll be much better off for it. 
Longer VHF and SSB antennas that are configured in a lay-down fashion are better flat on the deck than standing up.  Be sure and properly secure them in their “lowered” position to keep them from being blown around by wind or disturbed by the rocking of your boat.  Disconnecting coax cables at the radio end will prevent any static electricity that does accumulate from passing into the equipment.  Labeling the cables is never a bad idea.  What’s obvious today may not be so obvious a few months down the road.  Devising a method of grounding the cable shielding (outer conductor/braid) will provide a constant discharge path for any electricity that does find it’s way to the cable.  For those of you who really like dotting I’s and crossing T’s, shorting the center conductor of the coax cable to the grounded shield would fall into that category.  Obtaining a connector that mates up with the one on the cable end can make the shorting and grounding process much easier.  Bonding all the electronics to the vessels common ground (the water) is also recommended.  It’s not necessary in order for your equipment to work properly, but it does reduce the odds of static electricity build-up and can also serve to reduce paths for stray electrical currents that may promote electrolysis.  Metal hull vessels make this job real easy since almost everything is a good ground.  However, nonmetallic boats require considerable effort and attention when it comes to grounding.  Volumes have been written on this subject so that’s where I’m going to leave it for now.
Excessive temperatures can be devastating to electronics.  Even though most quality marine electronic equipment manufactured today is designed to withstand the harsh environment, reasonable precautions still make sense.  Take steps to avoid exposing them to direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time.  Block windows and provide shading where needed.  If your equipment came with snap on plastic covers, use them.  Most of us have been around electronics long enough to understand how damaging heat and prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can be.  If you use common sense and do what you can to minimize exposure to extreme temperatures, your electronics (and your pocket book) will thank you for it.   
Once you are ready to reactivate your electronics after a prolonged down time there are a few things to consider.  It’s best to stabilize the environment prior to turning the equipment on.  Don’t fire up the air conditioning on a hot summer day or the heating in winter and immediately turn on the electronics that are in the same area.  That just promotes the condensation you’ve been trying to avoid.  Make sure the batteries are fully charged and visually inspect everything, including the antennas.  Once you do turn on the electronics, give some extra time to the radios and radar before you transmit.  If you disconnected the antenna cables but elected not to ground them, remember why you did it in the first place.  You were trying to keep static electricity out of your electronics so be sure and ground the end of the cable prior to reconnecting it to discharge any static electricity that may be on the line.
Although the primary purpose of this article is for when your boat is going to be out of service for an extended period of time, some of the practices and procedures given here can apply to the everyday operations, care, and maintenance of your electronics.  Not all failures can be avoided but with a better understanding of your equipment and the application of a few relatively simple procedures, you can go a long way toward extending the life of your electronics and saving a lot of money.  Smooth sailing.